As usual, I start my pre-Worlds post with apologies about neglecting the Blog and excuses about other things getting in the way. Clearly, I also include the traditional promises to post more often and to treat my massive audience of about three people much better. At this point it should be clear that I don't mean a word of it...
Anyway, on to the business in hand. What have we got in store at the World Pipe Band Championships this year. It would be impossible to start any discussion without referring to the format. Over the years I have written several times on my view as to how the contest ought to be improved. The focus has been on two major issues - the two day format and the Finale.
It seems clear to even the most casual observer that the two day format has not been working. From the start, when you may recall the contest was more comprehensively split across the two days, it received mixed reviews at best. Following minor uproar, the other Grades were allowed to return to the Saturday fold but the Grade One Qualifiers remained in splendid isolation in their Friday doldrum.
All sorts of justifications had been provided, but the main one seemed to be that the Grade One Bands resented the fact that the old system had meant that, if they didn't make it to the final, they could end up playing their MSR to a crowd of about five people at 9am on Saturday morning and then pack and go home. The costs of getting to the Worlds (particularly for the overseas contingent) meant that this was something which understandably dampened enthusiasm for returning year on year.
However, the crowds voted with their feet. The pattern for the last few years has been that the Friday is sparsely attended. The traders don't want to pay for the two day "pitches", so the food and merchandise options are limited. For a videographer, there are advantages. I can get much closer to even the most popular outfits, as there is little competition. But I can't imagine that the RSPBA had me in mind when they set out the calendar. Pipes|Drums conducted a survey amongst (most) of the Grade One bands and although I can't vouch for its authenticity, it revealed that a significant (almost overwhelming) majority favoured reversion to the single day format.
Combine that feeling with the fact that the entry this year has been so small that there is no need for a Qualifier and it is hard to imagine why the RSPBA is sticking to the unpopular two day event. One can only presume that the reason is a commercial one. Even with the Friday having a "ghost town" ambiance, more Scottish Pound Notes must be gathered with a two day event. Of course the Worlds itself is really run by an events company, with the RSPBA only running and regulating the contest, so perhaps the commercial pressure is from outwith the pipe band fraternity, but it seems a poor call nonetheless.
So, what are we left with? A two day affair where each Grade One band will play BOTH their Medley and MSR sets and the entire total across the two days will count towards the title. No more qualifiers, no more heats. I'll return to that.
In the meantime, what else hasn't changed? The Finale. Last year the event seemed to run on until about midnight. It didn't. It just felt like it. The weather wasn't great and it was starting to get cold. The results were eventually called out into the gloom where the officials presumed the Bands were still standing. Luckily my cameras are pretty good in low light, but if you look at the end of my Saturday vlog post here, you will see a fairly close approximation to the conditions we were dealing with at prize time.
All this was notwithstanding the fact that the Grade One contest had concluded many hours before. The timetabling of the minor Grades needs to be brought forward, with less of a gap between qualifiers and finals to allow the Finale to start earlier. They should also canvass the Bands as to whether they actually want to take part in a formal march past. I'm sure that many of the overseas Bands relish their moment in front of the stands and the cameras, but a lot of the local would likely forgo that for an earlier home-time.
Returning then to the format and the results for Grade One. Looking first at last years results, it can be hard to get a feel for what might have happened had we had the new format then. The fact that the Qualifiers involved two heats (obviously) means that we can't exactly work out what would have happened had they been combined into one. The result is a more accurate predictor if we presume that the two heats were evenly split in terms of the ability of the Bands. We have to discount the Bands who didn't make it to the Final as they only have a single set of results.
Let's look at some tables:
The above should be fairly self-explanatory, but it is comprised of the results from both the qualifiers and the final for all the Bands who made it through (less the two dearly-departed) combined to give a global total.
As you can see the winners stay the same, but as high as third place, we have a switch. Scottish Power nip into third, displacing St Laurence O'Toole and Shotts also leapfrog Fife to claim the last place in the top six. SLOT and SFU would be fighting it out on ensemble preference, but my patience for ploughing through figures doesn't extend that far. In any event, starting to discuss ensemble preference in a clearly hypothetical case would be utterly redundant.
What does that tell us? Probably just that Field Marshal and Inveraray would have risen to the top last year no matter the format. Two Bands with four strong sets each. The suggestion would also seem to be that (last year) Scottish Power was a more consistent outfit across all four performances than SLOT. The St Laurence performance in their Qualifying MSR seems to have let them down. this year there will be no chance of simply writing off a poor run in the Qualifiers.
What about more recent form?
Well, we have had four Major Contests this year. The Canadians remain unknown quantities, but what if we try to combine the results from 2019 so far in a similar format?
This table looks at things through a 2019 lens. Apologies to the other Bands who didn't feature in last year's final, but I suspect that most will imagine that the winners of the top six places will come from the same pool. Clearly, as stated above, I have dropped out the Canadians and imagine that they could slot in in similar positions to last year. The projected places in the lower half are therefore optimistic for Bands in those positions.
There are of course huge reservations about taking this too seriously. The Bands will have to cope with four performances over two days, rather than "single shots" as each of these was. I'm also not sure whether any of these Bands have been switching up their sets, or whether each performance has been of their "Number One Set". Is there a chance they may have neglected the "Number Two"? Could we see a similar outlier to SLOT's MSR qualifier last year?
Who knows? However, suggesting that the final running order would be Inveraray, SLOT, Power, FMMPB and then Boghall sounds about right given current form, doesn't it? As it should, before anyone points this out, this lower table reflects the current standings in the Champion of Champions Table - but what the Champion of Champions table doesn't show is the relative distances between the Bands. We can see IDPB with a four point margin over St Laurence, but then a ten point gap back to Power. Can they overcome that? From Scottish Power to FMMPB is again only a four point margin. Could it be that the real battles will be between IDPB and SLOT for the top spot and then between FM and Power for third place?
The time for mindless speculation is drawing to a close. In a couple of short weeks we will know all the answers and will, once again, be giving off that the judges got it wrong. Roll on Glasgow Green....